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Tuesday, 18 February, 2003, 16:24 GMT
'Asylum hotel' row prompts review
Coniston Hotel in Sittingbourne
The use of a Kent hotel has caused anger
Downing Street says an urgent review is underway over Home Office plans to house asylum seekers in a three-star hotel in Kent.

But, the Prime Minster's official spokesman stressed that the government was pressing ahead with its policy to place asylum seekers in so-called induction centres.

They are under pressure and it appears they have lost the control of the asylum system

Iain Duncan Smith
Although he acknowledged that there had been a failure to consult the local community and its MP in the Sittingbourne case, on the general issue "difficult decisions" would have to be made.

He said the government was not complacent of the challenges asylum presents.

Earlier Downing Street said that it was "not possible or desirable" to turn the UK into a fortress.

'Insensitive'

But Mr Blunkett, told MPs that he wanted a "step-change" in the way the National Asylum Support Service relates to local communities, after it was announced that the Coniston Hotel in Sittingbourne was to be used to house asylum seekers.

He said the procedures and process used to buy the hotel were "unsatisfactory and incompetent" and underlined the need for a massive improvement in the way the service dealt with sensitive issues.

David Blunkett
Blunkett: Trying to prevent asylum seekers falling prey to people traffickers
Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Derek Wyatt had called for the two year halt to asylum seekers after it emerged the Home Office was planning to use the local hotel to induct people newly arrived in the UK.

No-one had been consulted locally and the subsequent row led Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes to pledge a rethink on the issue.

Rethink

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The Home Office acknowledges that the processes that should have been in place in respect of consultations were not satisfactory.

"There should have been more and better consultation with the local community and the MP."

Derek Wyatt MP
Mr Wyatt was angered at the lack of consultation
But the spokesman said the rethink only applied to the Sittingbourne hotel. The wider policy has not changed, he said.

Speaking earlier, the spokesman stressed: "It's never been our desire to turn Britain into a fortress but it's important to recognise improvements to the system."

He insisted the system for dealing with new arrivals had been improved.

'Panic measures'

The spokesman stressed it was important not to link international terrorism with the UK's current asylum difficulties.

Earlier, Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith said the government was in a mess and taking "panic measures" over asylum.

He accused ministers of having "no idea of the credentials" of many of the people coming into Britain and said he feared a "worryingly large" number may have a terrorist background.

Asked in the Commons by shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin whether it was legitimate to make the link between asylum and terrorism, Mr Blunkett said it was legitimate to ask questions about the screening of those who enter the UK and those who are resident here.

Refugees take shelter in a Calais church
Immigrants will first stay at induction centres
But he warned that people who said there was a simple answer were deluding themselves.

They risked "whipping up scares which can do no good in terms of security measures and every harm to race relations, which are often fragile and can so easily tip over into a situation which we couldn't control".

Mr Blunkett told MPs that from the spring, a new programme, organised with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), would screen applicants for asylum from areas of the world where people were experiencing "the threat of death or torture".

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dems home affairs spokesman, criticised government attempts to improve Britain's handling of asylum seekers entering the country, arguing that creating a new European Refugee Agency was the only sensible way forward.

'Unpopular policy'

Property companies have been commissioned by the Home Office to look for buildings which already have planning permission for use as hostels.

This means the government has no need to consult local councils or residents - as they did when planning the rural reception centres last year.

Asylum seekers would stay in the hotels or country houses for about 10 days while they were introduced to the asylum process.

Mr Duncan Smith said: "[The government] is under pressure and it appears they have lost the control of the asylum system."

The government is pushing ahead with large-scale accommodation centres in Nottinghamshire and Oxfordshire, for people to stay while their applications are processed.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Niall Dickson
"The Home Secretary admitted a number of mistakes had been made"
Home Office minister Beverley Hughes
"We have to do this much, much better"

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20 Jan 03 | England
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